“Talking pictures are like putting lip rouge on the Venus de Milo.”
The First Female Movie Mogul. Fashion Icon. The biggest star in showbiz. In 1919, Pickford, with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, formed the independent film production company, United Artists. Through UA, Pickford was able to produce and perform in her own films; she could also distribute them as she chose. In 1910-1920, she was making a million dollars a year, that’s $18 million in 2018 dollars. But, she still wasn’t allowed to vote!
Her first film was in 1909 and her final movie was in 1949. In 1916 alone, she made 50 films! She was the darling of the silent screen. In her 20s, Pickford became famous playing 14-year-olds. Her characters were always sweet, virginal, waifish girls, feminine, but the style that wouldn’t allow herself to be pushed around by anybody.
Pickford appeared in over 250 film credits spanning from the inception of the art form through the introduction of talking pictures. Pickford controlled and shaped her own image by negotiating a producer’s contract in 1916 that gave her story and hiring rights over all of her pictures. She worked out of her co-owned Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, now known as “The Lot” in Hollywood, and employed a bevy of female support including the highest paid screenwriter of the time, Frances Marion. During the course of Marion’s career, she wrote over 325 scripts, many of them for Pickford. She was the first writer to win two Academy Awards.
Pickford was one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was the second female to win an Oscar.
When movies began to talk, Pickford disapproved. She thought that sound was a terrible idea, and that film was an art in the silent form. She tried making them anyway; her first talkie was Coquette (1929), about a Southern belle, her unsavory suitor, and a murder. Pickford won her Oscar for her performance, and then four years later she gave up acting. Still, she continued to be a major force in the industry.
How did a woman get that power, a century ago? It was all about with her popularity. She leveraged her box-office in a way that most actors couldn’t. She saw herself as a brand, a franchise and she demanded more of everything.
In 1909 Pickford made $10 a day. Within a few years, she was making $250,000 a film. She wasn’t happy being being big a star; she took her power and became a producer, a company owner, and became an owner of the theatres. No casting couch for Pickford; she owned the couch. She was discreet about that power. If she clashed with her director, she would never criticize him on the set.
She also possessed compassion and generosity. On every set, Pickford hung a bucket and asked cast and crew to chip in money for industry people who had no work. She organized the Motion Picture Relief Fund, and her foundation still supports film preservation. In 1916, Pickford and Constance DeMille, wife of director Cecil B. DeMille, helped found the Hollywood Studio Club, a dormitory for young females just starting in the biz.
Only Chaplin, who slightly surpassed Pickford’s popularity, had cast a similar spell on critics and the audience. Each enjoyed a level of fame far exceeding any other actors. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Pickford was the most famous woman in the world, or, as a journalist described her:
“….the best-known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history“.
Pickford became secretly involved with Douglas Fairbanks while married to her first husband Irish film star, Owen Moore. Fairbanks and Pickford toured together in 1918 to promote Liberty Bond sales for World War I. Although Pickford wore a mask, she suffered from the great flu pandemic of 1918-19. Pickford divorced Moore in1920, after she agreed to his $100,000 demand for a settlement (1.5 million in 2021 dollars). She married Fairbanks days later in what the press described as the “marriage of the century”. They were referred to as the King and Queen of Hollywood. They went to Europe for their honeymoon which caused riots from fan trying to get a glimpse of the famous couple. Their triumphant return was witnessed by big crowds who waited at railway stations across the USA to celebrate the couple.
Her celebrated home Pickfair in Beverly Hills was originally an 18-acre estate designed by architect Horatio Cogswell for a prominent Los Angeles attorney as a country home. He sold the property to Fairbanks in 1918. Dubbed “Pickfair” by the press, it became one of the most celebrated houses in the world. LIFE magazine described it as “a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House… and much more fun.”
Parties at Pickfair were the stuff of legend; guests included Chaplin (who lived next door), the Duke of Windsor and Duchess of Windsor, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, H.G. Wells, Amelia Earhart, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Crawford, Noël Coward, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Edison, Gloria Swanson, and the King and Queen of Siam.
Fairbanks and Pickford divorced in 1936, but Pickford continued to live there with her third husband, actor Buddy Rogers, until her death in 1979. Pickford began drinking a lot in her later years and she rarely received guests, but she continued to open her home for charitable organizations to sponsor fund raising soirees.
Empty for several years after Pickford’s death, Pickfair was sold to Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who continued to care for the home, updating, while preserving its unique charm. In 1988, it was purchased by Pia Zadora and her husband who announced that they were some planning renovations to the famous estate, but in 1990 it was discovered that they had demolished Pickfair. At first Zadora claimed the house had serious damage from termites, but later releavled the home was razed because it was haunted. Zadora:
“Years ago my husband and I tore down one of the most iconic Hollywood mansions because of termites … but that wasn’t the real reason. When we moved into the house it was beautiful, everything was perfect, it was a dream … but weird things started to happen … so my husband and I, after trying to figure out what to do, decided we were going to have the house razed.
If I had a choice, I never would have torn down this old home. I loved this home, it had a history, it had a very important sense about it and you can deal with termites, and you can deal with plumbing issues, but you can’t deal with the supernatural.”
Zadora’s purchase and demolition of Pickfair is referenced in Deborah Harry and Iggy Pop‘s crazy cover version of Cole Porter‘s Well, Did You Evah! from the fabulous Red Hot + Blue (1990), a compilation album released as part of a HIV/AIDS benefit project. On the track, Pop claims he was invited to Zadora’s house but didn’t go, later saying “I hear they dismantled Pickfair… wasn’t elegant enough“.
You probably knew most of this, but did you know that Pickford invented the podcast? In 1928, a radio broadcast from Pickford’s bungalow featured her husband, along with Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore, and Dolores del Rio, all speaking about how they could meet the challenge of making talking pictures.